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NFL Regular Season Recap: Did 2020 Affect the League’s Future?

Last Updated: July 20, 2021

The NFL’s four-month regular season sprint is officially over. Closing with the Washington Football Team clinching the NFC East division’s title and the playoff spot that serves as the prize for claiming that honor, the NFL’s full 256-game slate was completed without a single cancellation. 

That doesn’t mean the season was without its fair share of complications, as several games were postponed and rescheduled, others were played by teams with entire position groups or integral members of coaching staffs missing. All in all, 222 players and 396 team staffers tested positive for COVID-19 between August 1st and December 26th, jeopardizing games and the sanctity of the season, alongside revenue losses from a ticketing standpoint.Nineteen teams allowed fans into their stadiums this season, with league-wide attendance totalling 1 million, after drawing 17 million last season. While that is the lowest number of fans in the stands since 1938, it’s quite the accomplishment all things considered, even if it likely represents around $5 billion in lost revenue for the league. 

Forbes estimated $5.5 billion in “stadium revenue” was at stake as the NFL decided just how to proceed with a full slate of games with or without fans in the stands in 2020. Some concessions were made, including holding the salary cap at $198.2 million, allowing players to opt out of the season and receive a $150,000 stipend without penalty, adding an additional playoff spot to account for the possibility of cancelled games or players missing games due to COVID-19 related causes, and more. Teams also mitigated losses in resourceful ways, like allowing sponsors to buy ad space on the tarped off seating closest to the field that can be seen during broadcasts. 

But while the NFL kept the 2020 salary cap steady, it made no such guarantees for future seasons. In fact, while the NBA guaranteed a salary cap increase for the 2020-21 season, the NFL would only guarantee a salary cap floor for the 2021 season, setting that figure at $175 million. That figure would represent a massive dip from season to season, and only the second year-to-year decrease of the cap in history. There is optimism the cap won’t reach that floor, instead some are predicting it could land near $195 million next season, thanks to the COVID-19 vaccine increasing the likelihood of fans in stadiums next year and the ongoing negotiations for a series of new television deals for the league. 

It’s the league’s current broadcast partnerships that helped mitigate most of the expected losses due to the pandemic, and some expect the NFL’s asking price to double in the next round of broadcast deals as the current deal for ESPN’s Monday Night Football expires at the end of the 2021, while Fox, CBS and NBC’s deals expire after Super Bowl LVII, following the 2022 season. ESPN/ABC/Disney is expected to bid on not only the premiere weekly event, NBC’s Sunday Night Football, but the network is also expected to make a bid to join the Super Bowl broadcast rotation as well. Disney has also publicly stated interest in acquiring NFL’s Sunday Ticket package as well, and if they do follow through on their interest it should cost them much more than the $2 billion annually they currently pay for Monday Night Football. CNBC predicted last February the $1 billion Fox and CBS pays annually for Sunday afternoon games should double in the next broadcast deal, while the MNF deal will reach upwards of $3 billion. The $950 million annually NBC pays for SNF includes flexibility for its matchups, two playoff games and a spot in the Super Bowl rotation, so that price should see a massive increase as well, especially with NBC and Disney possibly engaging in a bidding war. 

Ratings were up and down all season long, with Front Office Sports reporting year-to-year dips in 11 weeks, increases in four weeks and one week that held steady through week 16 of the season. The season’s most damaging COVID-19 outbreak occurred Thanksgiving week, costing NBC a much-anticipated primetime matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the, then undefeated, Pittsburgh Steelers. Over 20 Ravens ended up on the team’s COVID reserve list, including their starting quarterback and reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson. The game was eventually postponed three times and finally played on a Wednesday afternoon, resulting in an audience of just 11 million viewers – a 50% decline year-to-year for what should have been a primetime Thanksgiving game. The postponements and anticipated viewership dip resulted in some advertisers getting their 30-second commercial time for free, according to the Wall Street Journal. Had the game been played originally scheduled, those 30 second spots would have fetched $1 million each. While the league already brings over $8 billion annually from its broadcast deals, it also brought in $3.6 billion in ad revenue in the 2019 regular season, a number that will surely slip this year thanks to uneven TV ratings and COVID-related difficulties like the Ravens-Steelers postponements.  

Still, with television viewership down across the board, the NFL still was responsible for 71 of the 100 highest-rated television broadcasts of 2020. On Christmas Day, the league again asserted its dominance, drawing 20 million viewers for a largely inconsequential contest between the Saints and Vikings. By contrast, the NBA’s premiere broadcast that day, the matchup between the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers and the upstart Dallas Mavericks, averaged 7 million viewers. For the NFL, that was a 19% increase over its last Christmas Day broadcast in 2017, while for the NBA that represented a 35% loss in ratings and 20% loss in viewership when compared to the Lakers matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers in the same slot on Christmas Day 2019. 

So, the NFL is gradually trending back to normalcy, even as COVID-19 still lingers as a threat to derail the league’s playoffs. The New Orleans Saints played their Week 17 game without their entire running back group, leaving wide receiver Ty Montgomery to slot in at the position. The outbreak threatens to upend their playoff game on Sunday, as star running back Alvin Kamara could potentially miss the game if he does not receive clearance from the COVID-19 list. The same could happen to any playoff team, and with exponentially less flexibility for postponements due to broadcast schedules, any outbreak could swing playoff games and maybe even the championship. 

But the playoffs will proceed as planned, and one of the 13 teams who opted against fans in the stadium this season, the Buffalo Bills, will be reversing course for the postseason, allowing 6,672 fans into their opening round game this weekend. Those fans will be required to test negative for COVID at the stadium, and will be required to socially distance and wear masks. That, plus the Steelers’ reported reversal on fans in the stands, means four of the six Wild Card round games will have fans in some capacity, and the AFC No. 1 seed Kansas City Chiefs will add to that number in the Divisional Round as well. 

Barring a series of massive upsets, Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers likely won’t host any playoff games this year, but their home stadium will serve as host of Super Bowl LV on February 7th. The Bucs had fans at all eight home games this year, with attendance averaging just under 15,000 over the course of the season. ESPN reported back in October that the league planned to have 20% capacity for the Super Bowl, and while the league has yet to confirm, they did announce an allotted amount of vaccinated first responders will make up a portion of the crowd at the big game. 

The NFL appears on course to finish their season as anticipated and projects to be back to business as usual next year. Like the NBA, NHL, MLB, WNBA and countless other leagues around the world, they persevered and found ways to mitigate their losses as best as could be expected. As everyone bides their time, waiting for the world to return to its pre-COVID state, the NFL has ensured that Sundays will remain their day at least for the next month.

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